We were asked to answer the question "what's it like out there" for 70 students at a speed-dating style careers event at The University of Manchester.

It’s always good to help out a client, and I think we learnt just as much as the students I advised.

We were the smallest company there, and I like to think represented a bit of a different career path for students interested in being a big part of something small, rather than a small part of something big. Also speaking were representatives from:

All the students were on Comp’ Sci’ Masters courses with various specialisms like advanced computing, data processing and software development.

The lions share of attendees were International Students, with many travelling from as far a field as China, India, Cyprus and others to study in Manchester which appears to enjoy a good international reputation. It’d be interesting to find out if international students more proactive in seeking career advice, or is this a reflection of the cross section of students on the courses as a whole. They’re certainly paying alot more to be there (up to £16k a year), due to slacker government regulations of fees in the international student market, so there’s certainly more motivation to get your money’s worth.

The room was pretty divided between students that had taken the initiative to gain commercial experience, even running their own businesses in some cases. However, most of the students hadn’t worked in computing, taken part in an internship or generally done much relevant work experience.

When we take on staff, work experience has far more weight than education. This is partly thanks to the diagonal career progression path that most people take – sticking at a job for 18 months or so, then moving to a slightly more senior position with another company, and so on. SME employers no longer want to invest in graduates with little work experience paying for training only to have them move on soon after it’s complete. That said, big Professional Services companies like Accenture and Deloitte, don’t tend to ask for work experience. A good grade on a good degree programme is enough to get you in the door for an interview and assessment. When you’re employing 140,000 people worldwide, you can afford to put people through their paces before taking them on.

There’s much graduates can do to take matters into their own hands, though. The student’s at Manchester have a lot going for them. They’re half way to having a masters from a respected institution. That blessing can also be a curse though, I sensed that some students had thought that degree would be all they needed to walk into a good job at the end of their studies, with little to no industry experience.

Traditionally the higher up the education ladder people get, the less interested they are in a career in web design and development which is often seen as less serious than other work like research, systems analysis and business IT consulting. I’d say around 1 in 6 at the event were interested in web design or development, although I’m open to the possibility they were just telling me that because that’s the answer I wanted.

Much more popular aspirations were careers in management, with around 3 in 7 of the students seeing IT as a route to either team leadership or middle management. A recurring subject was the fastest/easiest route from an entry level job into a leadership role. Hopefully the student’s wont be so forward about their ambitions in their fist interview for a programming job!

As far as salary expectations go, most students were pleasantly surprised at both our salary level and that of the other employers, clearly undervaluing their skills at today’s market value. Some said they’d read that as a graduate, they could expect as little as £15/16k per year.

Another interesting source of concern for a lot of students was the work permit. Many employers won’t consider prospective employees that are looking for a work permit. This makes it more difficult for the international students that want to stay in the UK to work. It’s a real catch 22 situation. You can’t get a job without the work permit, but you can’t apply for the work permit without having the job. There is a 1 year buffer period when you are entitled to work without one, but international students still experience being filtered out at the application stage. The situation must be costing the country in terms of talent retention, leaving many students to take their skills back to their home countries.

As well as concerns about work permits, a minority of students also shared concerns about the relevance of the course to employers. One student wondered about why none of the employers he’d spoken to had mentioned Java as a desirable skill – a programming language that fast overtook C/C++ as the defacto programming language taught to computer science students. He seemed to think the blame was with the University for teaching a less relevant language, rather than the employers requesting the wrong skills.

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